Our school, Ruffing Montessori in Cleveland, has long been committed to environmentally conscious practices. Administrators launched a green school initiative in 2005, which led to recycling, composting, and a no-waste lunch policy. Solar panels, geothermal heating, and a green roof are just a few of the building’s green elements.

The parent association has the challenge of bringing the school’s green initiative to life beyond the classroom. When I became PA president in 2007, the group decided to introduce creative green alternatives to traditional parent group activities. We made simple changes to significantly reduce waste at events, chose to shop locally whenever possible, and introduced a new fundraiser, a secondhand shoe sale.

Reducing Waste

We’ve made small changes to the way we do nearly everything. First, we have cut down on our paper consumption by using free websites to publicize events and share news. During the school’s fall festival, we used a wiki page to plan the event online, reducing waste and keeping volunteers literally on the same page.

Second, we invested in reusable event supplies. At gatherings, we fill large coolers with water and encourage guests to fill their own bottles. Last year, the PA bought ceramic dishes to use at formal school events. While the initial investment was more than the cost of paper plates (and the dishes do require washing and storage), the long-term savings and reduced environmental impact made sense.

Buying Locally

We take a “think globally, shop locally” approach to group purchases, choosing local retailers over out-of-town providers whenever possible. Food and beverages at staff breakfasts, for example, come from a parent-owned bakery and a nearby coffee brewer. This approach limits the school’s carbon footprint and cultivates our relationships with local suppliers, often resulting in discounts. Many times, we develop these relationships through parents who are business owners, providing another way for them to participate in school activities.

Green Fundraising

Like many Montessori schools, Ruffing requires students to keep a pair of slippers or classroom shoes. Finding slippers in August can be a chore for parents. But we knew many families would have at least a few pairs of outgrown or never-worn shoes in the back of their closets. Starting a gently used shoe sale was a no-brainer.

We announced our first sale during the final weeks of the school year, asking families to donate gently worn slippers, shoes, and boots. By the end of the summer, we had collected 70 pairs. Because the shoe sale was a new event that cost practically nothing run, there was no pressure to meet a certain fundraising goal. We charged a flat rate of $5 per pair during the morning sale, earning $150 and selling half the inventory.

In 2008, we moved the sale to the first week of school, extended the hours, and pre-tagged shoes to make it easier for parents to find the right size. More important than any specific changes was that parents knew what to expect, which let them save their own shoes to donate and make the sale their first stop when planning back-to-school shopping. Profits exceeded $500, creating a small but welcome surplus in a budget based on the previous year’s proceeds.

With the shoe sale on its way to becoming one of the school’s green traditions, we’re planning to expand the sale to include winter outerwear and Halloween costumes and possibly opening it to the public.

Making a Difference

It’s easy to see the changes the PA’s green efforts make at school, but it’s not as easy to know whether they’re having an affect on the choices families make at home. However, one new parent told us she has already changed her habits as a result of the PA’s work.

“Ruffing’s no-waste lunch policy and the PA’s commitment to reducing waste and recycling in their events has really challenged me to cut out unnecessary packaging in my own home,” says Kari Greenfield. “Now I find I’m buying as much as I can in bulk, investing in reusable storage containers, and looking at everything—from tap shoes to snowsuits—to see if and how it can be reused.”

The steps our group has taken complement the school’s programs and support the school’s charge to “transform Ruffing into a brighter shade of green every day.”

Sarah Routh is finishing her second term as president of the Ruffing Montessori School parent association.